By the Ledger Editorial Advisory Board
In the 20th century, two American presidents were felled by an assassin’s bullets, William McKinley in 1901 and John F. Kennedy in 1963. In 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by two of her bodyguards. And on Nov. 4, 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down.
In totalitarian states, assassination sometimes leads to revolution. A great democracy passes smoothly into the hands of a designated successor – but it is battered and shell-shocked nonetheless. Conspiracy theories often arise in the wake of such an horrendous and calamitous moment.
Young John Kennedy wasn’t killed by Lee Harvey Oswald – so the story goes – but by Cubans, or Mafiosi, or Soviet agents, or the CIA, or even Vice President Lyndon Johnson. It wasn’t the Texas School Depository Building, but the grassy knoll. The true perpetrator was not a lone gunman but someone’s invisible hand. Thus does a stunned citizenry rationalize the societal disruption, with festering hatreds left behind as the byproduct.
This week, Israel commemorates the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination. The most mortal wound ever inflicted upon the Jewish democracy of Israel came not from a Palestinian suicide bomber or an Arab army or an Iranian missile. Instead, it came from a Jewish citizen of the State of Israel.
And just as the United States was once transfixed by conspiracy theories of Kennedy’s assassination, so the Jewish state continues to be enveloped in those of Rabin’s. The official narrative has a twentysomething Israeli law student calmly walking up to Rabin after a peace rally in downtown Tel Aviv and pumping three fatal bullets into his back. Believing he was doing God’s and the Jewish people’s work, Yigal Amir used his gun to stop a madman politician set on handing over the Land of Israel to its most maniacal adversary.
But even before Rabin had been laid to rest the next morning at Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl, more complex narratives had begun to take shape: How could this lone wolf break through the security phalanx surrounding Rabin? Why did Rabin’s General Security Service (GSS) bodyguards yell “Blanks! Blanks!” at the moment of the attack? Why was there a bullet entry tear on the front of Rabin’ shirt if he was shot from behind? What invisible hands inside the limousine that whisked the dying Rabin to Ichilov Hospital mysteriously closed its doors, and why did the limousine take a wrong turn to the hospital?
To this day, some Israelis believe that Rabin stage-managed his own assassination in order to win the sympathies of a citizenry which had grown disillusioned with the Oslo peace process – and something inexplicably went sour with the deceit. Either the dupe assassin had his blanks surreptitiously exchanged for live bullets, or somewhere between the scene of the crime and the hospital Rabin suffered a stroke or the job was finished off by someone inside the limousine.
Others believe that members of the Israeli security establishment wanted to foil the Oslo peace accords, and engaged in a coup d’état with the willing participation of the GSS. Still others are convinced that then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres himself ordered a hit on his boss and Labor Party adversary.
Newsweek journalist Dan Ephron has just published Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, a new book that reviews all the conspiracy theories and the people who embrace them. What Ephron uncovers is a fractured Israeli Jewish society, more torn apart today than it was 20 years ago.
Once upon a time, Israelis imagined that assassinations in the Middle East only took place in fragile Arab states. Israelis were convinced that any Arab leader who made peace with Israel would eventually receive the assassin’s bullet. In 1951, King Abdullah of Jordan was murdered by a Palestinian at the al-Aqsa mosque for that very reason. Thirty years later, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was gunned down in Cairo for making peace with Israel at Camp David.
For their part, Arabs grudgingly admired the unity of their Israeli adversary. The country owed its strength to a common will to provide Jews with a haven in their region. It was an orderly state that conducted open elections on a regular basis, even surviving the monumental electoral earthquake of 1977 that exchanged the pragmatic Zionism of Rabin for the muscular revisionist Zionism of Menahem Begin. Israel, thought the Arabs, was galvanized by an unshakable solidarity.
On that Saturday night in downtown Tel Aviv, the death of a strong-willed leader and former military commander seemed to make Israel a country like its neighbors. On that night, it discovered that its most threatening enemy was not some external dark force but was seething from within. Wrote one Jordanian columnist a few days after the assassination: “Israel, welcome to the Middle East!”
Great democracy that it is, Israel has survived the assassination of its leader. But it is still paying the price.